Saturday, 22 January 2011

Egypt - Nile and Red Sea Journey

10 - 21 January 2011

On the approach to my 30th Birthday I decided that for once I wanted a warm birthday.  January in England wasn’t an option, so I started looking round for warm places to go.  With a little help from the Imaginative Traveller we decided on Egypt and their ‘Nile and Red Sea Journey’.  No sitting around on beaches for this trip…

Cairo is a huge city with a huge population.  The traffic is bad 24/7 (except Fridays) and most journeys seem to take about an hour. 
We were staying at the Mayorca Hotel, which seemed to be part way through a renovation with lower floors in better condition than higher floors.  But it was clean and tidy and when you are only sleeping somewhere for a few nights, that’s all you want.
Our tour leader was a lady called Maryam who organised everything for us – a group of 9.  We had a mixed schedule of activities and free time in which extra activities could be done for a fee.
On our first day we were met by Adam and our driver Mr Michael and his Harry Potter mini bus to be taken out to Saqqara and the first Step Pyramid.  We were suffering from big culture shock at this point, and driving along the side of very dirty canals full of rubbish with people fishing on it, we were wondering how good an idea this trip really was.
Arriving at Saqqara we forgot about the rubbish.  The change from green palm trees and crops to sandy desert happens within 100 yards.  And suddenly there was our first pyramid.  In fact there were several pyramids, but the others are covered in sand and just look like hills.
Adam told us many things about this pyramid but most of it won’t make sense unless you’ve got this huge block of stone in front of you.
From the Step Pyramid we went on to the Pyramid of Teti which we were allowed into.  You have to go down a small steep tunnel until you get to a flat area, then along more tunnel until you come out in a small room.  Every wall and ceiling was covered in hieroglyphics and it blew my mind!  The whole ceiling was covered in carved stars to represent the sky and the blocks of stone that formed each wall were immense. 
If it had been just me down there, I think I could have stayed for some time, just marvelling at the carvings, but with more people coming all the time, I didn’t feel comfortable and soon had to make my way back to the surface.
Our next stop was Memphis, the old capital of Egypt.  Here there wasn’t really that much to see.  The best being a huge stature of Ramses II, who we found all over the place, he was the most prolific builder of all the pharaohs.
We stopped for lunch (rather late) at a place just opposite the Pyramids of Giza, a good view to have while eating meat filled rolls. 
Our final stop of the day was at one of the many papyrus places, where they showed us how it is made, much cutting and squashing of papyrus, before being shown many decorated sheets and the stories that went with them. I found this totally fascinating.
Back at the hotel we had a quick break before some of us went back out to the Sound and Light show at Pyramids of Giza.  An excellent way of learning the background to these massive structures – the Sphinx acts as narrator.
When we got back we all went for dinner together.  The Spaghetti Macaroni was good.

The next day we were met by Adam again and off to the Egyptian Museum.  We were there nice and early so we were able to walk round Tutankhamen’s  part of the museum without any crowds.  This meant we could see the detail in his death mask and his sarcophagus without resorting to elbows, but it did fill up really quickly.
Adam took us round to all the things he thought were most important, filling our heads with dates and stories of ancient times.  We were then allowed to wonder free.  
The amount of things in the museum is amazing, I just wish there had been better lighting in sections and more explanational notes.  I know that I didn’t appreciate everything as much as I should.
We all met up again, and after another quick lunch with a view of the pyramids, we went to meet them up close.
The three big Pyramids of Giza are probably the most famous, but there are about 10 on the site.  They are immense, and walking right up to one, right into its cold shadow, is quite something.  In Egypt there are something like 113 pyramids and I imagine that even those on a smaller scale are still as impressive.
We looked at each in turn, took photos, and some people went into Mycerinus Pyramid.  With so many people around I couldn’t face that.
We then went round to the Sphinx.  If the pyramids felt bigger than expected, the sphinx felt smaller.  Throughout our time in Egypt we were told that pretty much every monument we visited had been covered with sand at some point or other in its history.  While some of the Temples are so huge it is hard to imagine this, you can just about see the Sphinx up to its neck in sand.
We had an early dinner of traditional Egyptian food.  Kushari a mixture of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and tomato sauce.  Sounds yuck doesn’t it, but it wasn’t too bad.  Not sure I’d want to eat it every day though.
The next part of our trip would take place in Aswan, right in the south of Egypt.  To get there we took the night train, something I don’t want to repeat.  The journey took 13 hours and I didn’t sleep very much at all.  Finally getting to Aswan was a relief.

We arrived in Aswan about 11:00 in the morning.  Compared with Cairo it was quiet, and our hotel, the Nile Hotel, actually had a view of the Nile.
We had time for the quickest of showers before meeting again in Reception for a trip to the Temple of Isis on the Island of Philae.  When the dams were built, the temple was submerged by the rising water.  It was then moved block by block to the nearby Island of Philae.
Again after the noise and movement of Cairo this was a lovely peaceful place to be.  Our guide told us about the temple and once again left us free to explore in our own time.
Back at the boat we were all feeling hungry.  But there was no point rushing we were on Egyptian time.
For lunch Maryam took us to a local Nubian village on the other side of the river.  Once again we took a boat trip and again I found it so relaxing. 

The people were very welcoming and took us to the roof of their house where the food was bought to us.  I think we all agreed it was the tastiest food we’d had so far.  The Nubian’s are very protective of their culture and tend to all live together, rather than mingle with the Egyptians, in fact they preserve their own language (Nubian) and don’t teach it to anyone but their own.  Lunch was served at 16:00 and we watched the sunset while we had henna designs painted on our hands and feet.  At the village school, they tried to teach us the Arabic numbers, and we walked back to the boat in darkness.
We did a lot a great things on this trip, but that afternoon was one of my favourite activities because of the peace that seemed to hang over the village.
Back in Aswan none of us really felt hungry, and an early night was in order.  We would be up at 02:30 for the trip to Abu Simbel.
Abu Simbel is similar to Philae in that it was also threatened by the rising waters, but while Philae is an island, Abu Simbel looks out across Lake Nasser, and takes 3 hours to get to across the desert from Aswan.
We arrived at 06:30 in good time to make the most of the morning light.
Ramses II built it to turn himself into a God.  The four ages of Ramses II adorn the front of the temple, while light strikes the three statues at the back of the temple twice a year, originally to mark his birthday and coronation.
This is a remarkable building just by what the ancient Egyptians managed to build, without thinking about the fact it has been moved to defeat the waters too.
By 09:00 we were done and on our way back to Aswan.

The Nile Cruise
We were now staying on a Nile Cruiser, M/S Melodie.  Four groups from the same travel company had come together to fill the boat, which made it feel like it was ours.
We had lunch, before going out again for a sail in a felucca.  After the long drive it was lovely to be out on the cool water.  And it was even better when half the group left us to go camel riding.  The sail back to the boat was quiet, perfect for watching the birds on the waters edge.

Before dinner we were taken to the Bazaar.  This was the most fascinating place possible where you could buy anything.  Spices, CD’s, wooden animals, jewellery, scarves.  I could have spent forever looking, but found the guys who own the stalls intimidating.  If you stopped to look they expected you to buy.  I enjoyed the walk but didn’t buy anything.

We left Aswan at some time in the early morning.  By the time we got up for breakfast we’d been underway for hours.
Our first stop was Kom Ombo and the Temple of Haroeris and Sobek.  How civilised to step off the boat and straight up to the temple.
Here they worshipped the God Sobek, the crocodile god.  They even had a pool to keep some in.  We wandered in cool morning sunlight, enjoying the brilliant blue skies and temple which was in good condition.
Back on the boat we enjoyed the sunshine while we carried on up the river.
Our next stop at about 16:00 was Edfu and the Temple of Horus.  Although the temple is quite close to the river we took a coach.  Our tour leaders had had problems here before and so the coach was used.  Most things of interest in Egypt seem to have people selling things on the lead up to the entrance and exit.  In Edfu they seemed more aggressive than others we had come across and we kept our eyes down.
The temple was big, and we were starting to recognise parts of the structure which were common with all the temples.  As we gathered to leave the sun was setting and grey clouds filled the sky.  It looked very dramatic but in the end came to nothing.
Back at the boat we carried on up the river to Esna where we would spend the night.  After dinner we had a party. 
We had stopped at Esna, as before we could continue up the river we had to go through the lock.  The river drops 6 metres here and we made sure we were on deck after breakfast to see it.
The locks are very similar to those in England, but on a much bigger scale.  Our cruiser fitted in with room to spare.
We spent the rest of the morning on deck in the fresh wind, before coming into Luxor in time for lunch.

After lunch on the boat we got horse drawn carriages (caleche) to the Karnak Temple.  I think this was my favourite temple, partly because it was so big, partly because I visited it on my birthday, and partly because I won a tiny scarab beetle from our guide for reading the hieroglyphics correctly.  Cleopatra’s needle in London came from here, and French graffiti high up on the walls shows the height the sand must have come to in some past day.
The horse carriages took us back not to the boat but to Luxor bazaar where we tried sugar cane juice (very sweet with a grassy taste) and bought hibiscus tea, (karkaday) our new addiction.  Made from the flowers of hibiscus bushes and served cold it’s the perfect summer drink.
Back on the boat we had dinner, and a surprise birthday cake arrived, which was pretty impressive as I hadn’t told anyone it was my birthday.

Next day was another early start.  Luckily not so early for us, as we had decided against a dawn hot air balloon ride, but still early enough.  As we went downstairs for breakfast we could see the balloons rising out of the mist over the Valley of the Kings
After breakfast we went across the river to meet the ballooners.  We would be riding donkeys to the Valley of the Kings.  I don’t think anyone was really looking forward to this experience, but it wasn’t as bad as we feared.  Our donkeys knew the way and went without too much encouragement.  The only thing I needed to do was remind it to stay on the right every so often.
After an hours ride we were all very glad to arrive at the Valley.
Cameras were handed in and in we went.  (if found with one it will be confiscated)
Because the moisture we visitors bring with us damages the paint work in the tombs along with camera flashes, they only open ten tombs at any one time, and then your ticket only lets you into three of them.  Our guide suggested the tombs of Ramses I, IV and IX.  After the pyramids I was surprised how large the corridors to the tombs were and how well decorated.  Each wall and ceiling was carved and painted in brilliant colours.  It was amazing to think that every temple we had seen so far would have been painted in a similar way, we were all so used to the simple sandstone colour.  Those kings who died early had quick paintings to finish off their tombs, while those who ruled/lived for longer had more completed tombs.
We had just one more temple to visit.  Deir el-Bahri (Hatshepsut’s Temple)  A temple to the only Queen of Egypt.  It is completely different from all the other temples we’d seen as it is on three levels.  It was also totally destroyed by an earthquake, but has been painstakingly rebuilt.

At this point the four groups from the boat split up for the last parts of their tours.  One group off to the White Desert, one group off to Jordan, one group and a couple of ladies from our group when back to Cairo along with Maryam, while the rest of our group got ready to drive to the Red Sea and Hurghada.

We joined Shadi and his group of four.
It was a long drive to Hurghada from Luxor, taking about 5 hours.  We arrived in the early afternoon and were very glad to get out of the mini bus and stretch our legs.  We were staying at the Empire hotel, and to be honest after the small hotels that we had been using, I found it very busy and noisy.
We walked to the private beach that was connected to the hotel and looked at the sea, but it was cold and we were tired and we went back to our room.

The next day however was sunny and we were ready to go at 08:30.
We were going out on to the Red Sea to go snorkelling.
We started by stopping on an island and snorkelling from the beach.  This was perfect, as I’d never done this before and it gave me the chance to put my feet down if I need to.
The water was ok, but the wind was cold.
After an hour or so we moved on to the next place.  Here the water was deeper and we swam from the back of the boat.  The fish obviously got fed here regularly and were ready for us.  It was like swimming in my fish tank!
I was getting colder, but it was amazing.  We came back on board for lunch, and moved to a third place for more snorkelling.
Although the fish weren’t so abundant here, there were less people swimming which made it feel more like you were by yourself.  As we came back on board – freezing now, we saw a squid.
We came back to land in the sunshine.
The next day was the seven hour drive back to Cairo with the mountains on our left and the Red Sea on our right, it was quite an impressive drive.
Back in Cairo, its traffic and dirt surprised us again, but we’d soon be flying home so we just concentrated on the blood red sunset.
4 days after we left anti government riots broke out.  President Mubarak stepped down 18 days later. We hope that Egypt will be able to make a better future for itself without losing its history and traditions, looking forward without losing their past.

  • We went in mid January and found it quite cool, especially on mornings when we had to get up early.  I could have done with a thicker jumper at times, but it was never that bad.
  • Most public loo’s that we went to, we were either charged to use them or for toilet roll.  Worth having your own in your bag (along with antiseptic wipes!)
  • Sports bras may be useful when riding donkeys.
  • If people are trying to sell you something you don’t want its best just to say ‘no thanks’ – La shokran.  If you say ‘later’ or ‘maybe’ they will wait for you.
  • Try to get the smallest bills you can to take with you, as many people won’t have change.

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